Category Archives: All things winter

What’s So Cool About Gazex?

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Exciting, new avalanche control technology is coming to Crystal this season. Three Gazex exploders are currently being installed in Powder Bowl, and if you’re not familiar with the technology, you’ll have to trust me on this one. Gazex is cool.

Why?

Because nothing says all-caps AWESOME like a fiery ball of gas setting off an avalanche. That’s two Hollywood-style special effects for the price of one. Let’s call it the Powder Bowl Two-fer.

Gazex Explosion

So what is Gazex?

Here’s the official marketing speak from the maker’s of Gazex (T.A.S). website:

Gazex is a powerful, permanent remote avalanche control systems. Gazex operates without explosives: the blast is caused by the detonation of a propane and oxygen mixture. The exploders are connected to a central gas shelter capable of storing sufficient gas reserves for the entire season.

Essentially it breaks down like this: a few squirts (and by “squirts” I mean a highly scientific mixture) of propane and O2 are blended in the exploder tube and lit on fire. This is the kind of thing ten-year-old boys’ dreams are made of. A blast of fire explodes from the tip of the tube and points straight down at the snow. This, in turn, will start an avalanche if conditions are right. If not, just like with explosives AC (Avalanche Control), the slope is deemed safe enough to ride.

These exploders are permanent installations. For this reason, Gazex isn’t going to be replacing the ski patrol avalanche teams anytime soon (phew!). Instead, our goal is to use Gazex in places like PB and possibly Rock Face–avalanche paths that overhang heavily trafficked pistes. The Gazex exploders are triggered remotely, which means that the patrol can fire them off quickly and if the hazard ramps up during a storm.

Our Powder Bowl Gazex exploders won’t necessarily mean that Southback is going to open anytime sooner. But they will help us expedite our “in-area” Avalanche Control, keep our snowcat drivers safer and help to mitigate avalanche hazard in Powder Bowl.

Most importantly, Gazex is simply going to be cool to watch.

Blaine preparing concrete in Powder Bowl

Blaine preparing concrete in Powder Bowl

Ski Area Operator’s Worst Nightmare

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You might have seen this one on Unofficial Networks. Basically it’s your worst nightmare. The title is Every Skiers Nightmare, but really this is every ski operator’s nightmare too. One big gust of wind and that cable comes right off the line. Scary stuff. Chairlifts in N. America are regulated by a tram board. One of the basic requirements on all chairlifts is that the sheeve assemblies (the little wheels that the cable rides on) have a cable catcher that doesn’t allow this to happen. I’m not even sure how this is possible. But it’s ugly.

Deropement

This is what it looks like without a cable catcher.

 

 

 

 

Last week in Slovakia a flood and subsequent landslide destroyed the base area of Vråtna ski area. This one, too, sent a chill down my spine. According to the ski area’s Facebook page, no one was injured. But several million dollars worth of damage has been done to the ski area. Those Dopplemeyer gondolas don’t come cheap.

Gondola cabins inundated with landslide

Gondola cabins inundated with landslide

Vråtna's Gondola gets destroyed in landslide

Vråtna’s Gondola gets destroyed in landslide

 

 

Another B Lot Boy Featured in Powder: Steve Fratella

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Photo by Matt Small

Photo by Matt Small

Julie Brown at Powder.com continued recently with her Pay It Forward interview series in which she finds the true locals in the ski/snowboard world, asks them a few soulful questions and then has them choose the next interviewee.

I love this series not only because she started at Crystal, but more importantly because these are the true heroes of our sport.

Her first interview was with Crystal Mountain’s Hugh Gren. Hugh paid it forward to Steve and the resulting interview can now be found at Powder.

People like Hugh and Steve aren’t skiing for sponsors. They aren’t posting their best runs to YouTube or even wearing POV cameras. On the chairlift, these guys aren’t worried about the battery life on their GoPro.

They’re scoping their next line.

They go to the mountains to ski, to hang out with their friends, and have fun. They aren’t there to burnish their image or work on their brand or post impossibly filtered photos to Instagram.

It’s no surprise, really, that Julie’s first two interviews were Crystal locals. Many of these guys and gals stay for weeks in trailers in B Lot, Crystal’s big parking lot ringed on one side with RV parking. A handful of the most colorful locals are known, simply, as the B Lot Boys.

Photo by Matt Small

Photo by Matt Small

Steve Fratella is the real deal. He’s been at Crystal for as many seasons as I have. He skis hard and flies well under the radar, and I’m thrilled to see him showcased in my favorite magazine. Thanks Steve for keeping it real.

 

 

Lyndsey Dyer’s Story of the Skier Girl

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This is the time of year when ski and snowboard film producers start to put out teasers of upcoming films. Powder Magazine recently published a collection of the latest trailers (they’re calling it Trailer Park) and will be updating it  as new ones become available.

I’m especially excited about Pretty Faces, by Unicorn Picnic. This all-women film looks to be one of the best of the season. Check out the official trailer below.

 

The Film

Pretty Faces is a film celebrating women who thrive in the snow. The concept for the film was originated by professional big mountain skier and SheJumps co-founder, Lynsey Dyer with the objective of giving women and girls, young and old, a source of inspiration through a unique look at what is possible when boundaries are broken, dreams captured and friendships cultivated. In Lynsey’s words “I wanted to give young girls something positive to look up to…I wanted to give them their Blizzard of Ahhs, Ski Movie or High Life, but done in a way that also shows the elegance, grace, community and style that is unique to women in the mountains.”

Their Mission

Young girls need more positive role models to offer then an alternative to the world of skinny jeans, reality TV and fashion magazines. Unicorn Picnic aims to provide a positive source of inspiration for young girls first and foremost. The lessons learned on the mountain parallel those learned by many women who take the path less traveled. Their documentary ski film (Pretty Faces) will showcase women walking that path to deliver the message “If she can do it, then so can I.”

 

Crystal’s Hugh Gren Profiled in Powder Magazine

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Most of the people who read this blog probably already read Powder. Of course you do. But just in case you missed it, Crystal’s very own Hugh Gren was recently interviewed for a new series on Powder. The purpose of the series is for each interviewee to recommend the next one.

I recently ran into Hugh up on Chinook Pass, where he and a couple of other Crystal diehards were making the most of the remaining snow. They were taking turns shuttling each other to the top. I was riding my bike to the summit. It was Hugh’s turn to shuttle, and he stopped to cheer us on. And that’s a nice boost to get on those last few switchbacks from the summit. That’s just the kind of guy Hugh is. He may be a bit quirky and hyper, but above all else, Hugh has an infectious enthusiasm. He’s one of my favorite locals at Crystal.

Who did Hugh recommend for the next interview? Another Crystal favorite. But you’re going to have to read the article to find out.

Hugh Gren letting it all hang out on Chair 6

Hugh Gren letting it all hang out on Chair 6

New and Improved Chair 6 for 2014-15 Season

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As promised, Crystal Mountain will rebuild Chair 6 this summer. The chair, formerly known as High Campbell, was demolished in an avalanche earlier this year. I happened to see it firsthand since I was on the avalanche team that set off the slide. It was an historic wet slab avalanche that slid well down onto Queens Run, the green circle groomer below the slide path. The avalanche occurred at 4:40pm on March 10th after the ski area was closed. If you’ve been to Crystal in the last month, then you’ve seen the destruction not just on The Throne, but in Bear Pits, Employee Housing and Powder Bowl. (During the same time that these explosive-released avalanches occurred at Crystal, natural avalanches of similar size were happening around us in Crystal Lakes Basin as well as on Governor’s Ridge, both in Mt. Rainier National Park.)

Skytrac to build the new Chair 6 at Crystal Mountain

Skytrac to build the new Chair 6 at Crystal Mountain

The new Chair 6 will be a new double chair made by Skytrac, the only American ski lift manufacturer. Both terminals will be in the same place as the old High Campbell chair. The old concrete footings for the towers will also be used, which will reduce cost and materials. The capacity will be the same as the old one, which means it won’t get tracked any faster.

The chairs themselves will be more than double the weight of the old chairs, which means that the new Chair 6 will operate better in high winds. John Kircher, my husband and Crystal’s GM, expects to run the new chair in higher winds. He says that winds exceeding the chair’s ability to run would be too strong for skiers and riders anyways. In addition, the unload area will be bigger and will ease the double black diamond offload of the old days.

Gazex Exploder

Gazex Exploder

Since we’ve got the helicopters hauling materials to the summit, we might as well make the most of it. Crystal is also installing three Gazex exploders in Powder Bowl to help mitigate avalanches. These exploders, ubiquitous in the Alps and relatively new to North America, use propane and oxygen to deliver a 360 degree blast. The mixing shed that houses the tanks will be at the summit of the Queen and the three exploders (which look like bent-over lift towers) will be spread out on the left side of Powder Bowl.

Another improvement slated for the top of the new Chair 6 is–get this–snowmaking! We won’t be installing the snowmaking this summer due to some necessary environmental work, but we hope to get it going for 2015-16. Gone will be the rock-hopping, ski/board removal and side-stepping of yore.

We are hoping to solve a myriad of problems with this new lift. Moments after that ill-fated avalanche ripped off The Throne over a month ago, I was sick to my stomach. We’d destroyed an iconic lift. We’d cost the company tons of money. An entire pod of skiing was done for the season. My husband wasn’t going to be happy with me.

But as it turns out, the insurance is covering the replacement cost and the new lift will be better than the old one. It will operate at higher winds; the off-load will more user-friendly; and it will give us a chance to install Gazex and snowmaking.

So things are looking up.

 

What Does it Feel Like to Demolish a Chairlift?

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“What were your immediate thoughts when you realized the avalanche was so big?”

That’s a question I heard a lot yesterday.

A 25 lb explosive charge set off this avalanche on the Throne and demolished Chair 6 at Crystal.

A 25 lb explosive charge set off this avalanche on the Throne and demolished Chair 6 at Crystal.

On Monday I was on the avalanche control team that demolished the High Campbell Chairlift (aka Chair 6). We knew there was a potential for a big slide. Other slopes had slid to the ground in the past 24 hours. The skier’s right side of Powder Bowl had produced a full-depth avalanche and left a 10 foot crown. The Employee Housing slide path produced another big one. The snowpack was saturated with over 3 inches of rain. A weak depth hoar layer still lurked at the ground.

The right skid of Powder Bowl slid to the ground Monday morning before the slopes opened.

The right skid of Powder Bowl slid to the ground Monday morning before the slopes opened.

But we didn’t know it was going to go this big.

Sure, we made sure no one was below. We lowered our 25 lb. explosive well after hours. We worried that our results could be big. But I never thought we’d destroy the lift.

The bottom terminal was knocked off the bull wheel. The lift shack was demolished.

The bottom terminal was knocked off the bull wheel. The lift shack was demolished.

Talking to the old time patrollers who managed these slopes decades ago, nothing of this size has ever slid before. Maybe back in the pre-Crystal, pre-skier-compacted days this kind of thing happened. But not since Crystal has operated at a ski area.

So what did it feel like to let loose such a big slide?

Scary.

Seeing a big avalanche up close is an awesome thing. There’s nothing like it. As soon as the shot went off, my route partners and I ( we were a team of three women that my husband now calls the Three Shivas) knew it was big. We approached the ridge and looked down. The avalanche was just separating from the slope and noisily tearing down the mountain. At first all I heard was a low whoosh. Then a deep rumble. Next I heard the terrible sound of trees snapping. Finally I heard the sound of twisting metal.

Checking out the Avalanche Moments after we started it.

Checking out the Avalanche Moments after we started it.

The visibility was poor so we only had the noise to go on. And it was horrifying.

The Three Shiva Destroyers: Megan, Kim, and Michelle.

The Three Shiva Destroyers: Megan, Kim, and Michelle.

Outside of our boundaries large natural avalanches have been happening. When we decided to use explosives on The Throne, we all knew the consequences. But it was much better to destroy a lift when it was closed than to risk an avalanche when it was opened and occupied. We didn’t have a choice. Upper management knew the risk too, and my husband was all in. We had to do this thing.

As I mentioned in an earlier post this week, watching an avalanche is awesome, in the sense of massive and awe-inspiring. Seeing the aftermath yesterday with our first clear skies in weeks was horrifying.

Throne Avalanche seen from the Heli

Throne Avalanche seen from the Heli

All day yesterday we continued to test the slopes with large explosives. We dropped charges from a helicopter and hung them on trams. But we got virtually no results. Does that mean the slopes are now safe?

It means I slept better last night. The snowpack is adjusting to its load. We aren’t out of the woods yet. If we get a big rain event, this could happen again.

Throne Avalanche aerial view.

Throne Avalanche aerial view.

We are contracting our terrain at Crystal. What is open has been deemed safe. Don’t duck any ropes and respect all closures. Now isn’t the time for backcountry skiing either. Let’s remember who’s calling the shots here, it’s Mother Nature.

Here’s some footage of the Throne avalanche and it’s aftermath. This video is courtesy of patroller Andy Harrington.